Tag: gridlock

Blame It On the Constitution

The New York Times treats us today to an op-ed by Prof. Sanford Levinson entitled “Our Imbecilic Constitution,” with the remedy recommended for such imbecility taking us well beyond reforming the document’s amendment provisions. The problem, you see, is that our government has become “dysfunctional” owing to “gridlock.” Like all good Progressives, Levinson is a government man: he sees problems for which no less than the federal government is the ready solution, but that’s unlikely under the strictures our “imbecilic” Constitution imposes on it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, he starts with a complaint about federalism: in the Senate, small states have power equal to that of large ones, which in turn implicates the Electoral College. The remedy for the problems Levinson believes can be traced to those checks on power is to unleash popular will through a more direct democracy. Thus he lauds Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Progressives who “seriously questioned the adequacy of the Constitution.”

Theodore Roosevelt would have allowed Congress to override Supreme Court decisions invalidating federal laws, while Woodrow Wilson basically supported a parliamentary system and, as president, tried to act more as a prime minister than as an agent of Congress. The next few years saw the enactment of amendments establishing the legitimacy of the federal income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition and women’s right to vote.

Never mind the merits of those accomplishments, Levinson next offers various state constitutions as models for what might be, starting with New York’s, its fifth such document. One hopes the Knickbockers get it right before too many more years pass, because if dysfunction be the touchstone of failure, the Empire State has come close to it.

Then again, Levinson offers this idea for fixing congressional gridlock:

We could permit each newly elected president to appoint 50 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate, all to serve four-year terms until the next presidential election. Presidents would be judged on actual programs, instead of hollow rhetoric.

“Programs:” We need to get things done. Isn’t that what government is for?

To be sure, there are problems today that cry out for solutions, yet most are not inherent in the human condition but rather are the result of government “programs.” After all, it’s entitlements, individual and corporate, that have given us our massive deficits and debt, to take only the largest and most conspicuous examples. That is the one thing that Levinson does not seem to appreciate.

As compared to the rest of the world, our Constitution has stood the test of time fairly well. The problems we now have did not arise from abiding by its limitations but just the opposite. The Progressives ignored those limits. It’s that behavior, on which the New Deal and the Great Society doubled down, that has brought us to this impasse, with the country immersed today in the politics of a zero-sum game. We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to return to the one we have.

The Constitution, Gridlock, and American Politics

University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson has an op-ed in today’s New York Times on the thesis of his new book, Framed. He makes the observation that too many Americans “have seemingly lost their capacity for thinking seriously about the extent to which the Constitution serves us well.  Instead, the Constitution is enveloped in near religious veneration.” That’s a fair point. I have no doubt that if, say, podcast interviews were around in the 1790s, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison, and the other leaders of that time would tell us very frankly what they disliked about the Constitution and what improvements they thought would be beneficial. Such discussions are pretty rare nowadays and that is lamentable. A few weeks ago, Professor Levinson  stopped by Cato for an informal luncheon to discuss his book and reform proposals.

Professor Levinson and Cato scholars tend to disagree about his view of political  ”gridlock” and whether it is responsible for the electorate’s low opinion of the Congress and of the federal government more generally. Speaking only for myself, I agree with Professor Levinson that the Article V amendment procedure has proven to be a defect and I explain why here (pdf).

Related material here and here.

The Traffic Congestion Problem

A new report says that traffic congestion is worse, and the American Public Transportation Association urges Congress to … spend more money on public transportation.

Cato senior fellow Randal O’Toole has been challenging the received wisdom on traffic and mass transit for years. See his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It, and lots of other studies. In November he debated the head of the American Public Transportation Association at a Cato Policy Forum:

A New Day? Obama Faces Reality

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

The president will address this new political reality at a 1 p.m. news conference. What should President Obama say to reckon with the reality of the Democratic debacle?

My response:

What the president should say and what he will say at his press conference this afternoon are likely to be two different things. He should say that he and his party seriously misread the 2008 election results: Americans were rejecting the Bush administration’s eight years of expansive government. But he can hardly say that without repudiating the last two years: After all, he doubled down on Bush’s policies. Yesterday the vast majority of Americans said, in effect, “And we mean it!”

Not everywhere, to be sure, but look at the House map this morning: It’s almost all red, with scattered pockets of blue. Obama should recognize that reality, but to do so would be to abandon the dream, and he is nothing if not a dreamer. Throughout this campaign administration apologists kept saying that the problem was not in the product but in the packaging – in the delivery. No. It was the product. Americans didn’t want it.

So Obama will doubtless give lip service to yesterday’s results and talk about the need for all to work together “to solve America’s problems” – as though we were all on some grand collective mission. But in his subsequent actions he will likely turn to the elites in those isolated urban and academic blue pockets on the map to try to fashion a comeback consistent with his dream, because a Bill Clinton pivot would be wholly out of character with a man who branded opponents as “the enemy.” We’re probably in for two years of gridlock before we can return to fundamental principles of limited government, and that’s good.

It Ain’t So, Joe

Vice President Joe Biden is an affable fellow, which sometimes makes his tendency to exaggerate the truth somewhat amusing. However, Biden’s latest tall tale is as unamusing as it is wrong.

From the New York Daily News:

“Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive,” he said. “In the middle of the Civil War you had a guy named Lincoln paying people $16,000 for every 40 miles of track they laid across the continental United States. … No private enterprise would have done that for another 35 years.”

I’ll go straight to the 19th century railroads issue by referencing the work of two Cato scholars who probably know a little bit more about the topic than Joe Biden.

First, Randal O’Toole discusses railroads and land grants in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It:

Early American railroads were built almost entirely with private funds. These railroads provided such superior transportation that by 1850 they had put most toll roads and canals out of business. Individual states still competed with one another for business—and may have offered various favors to the railroads serving those states…. For the most part, however, no federal and few state subsidies went to railroads in the eastern United States.

The Pacific Railway Act provided land grants and low-interest loans to the companies completing the railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa to California. Later laws provided land grants (but no low-interest loans) for railroads from St. Paul to the Puget Sound, Los Angeles to New Orleans, Los Angeles to St. Louis, and Portland to San Francisco. In total, about 170 million acres were granted to the railroads, but Congress eventually took back about 45 million acres for nonperformance, leaving the railroads a maximum of about 125 million acres.

Congress expected that the railroads would sell the land to help pay for construction. In many instances, there was no immediate market for the land. Much of it was not farmable, and the United States had a surplus of wood so there was little market for timberland. In the latter half of the 20th century, the energy and timber resources on lands granted to the Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, Sante Fe, and Union Pacific railroads proved very profitable. But this did not help them build the railroads in the first place.

In January 1893, the Great Northern Railway completed its route from St. Paul to Seattle without any land grants (except a small grant to a predecessor railroad) or other federal or state subsidies. The railway competed directly with the Northern Pacific, and to some extent with the Union Pacific, which served some of the same territory. The Great Northern’s builder, James J. Hill, knew that the other railroads had been built primarily for the subsidies, and as a result, they were poorly engineered and often followed circuitous routes. Hill built the Great Northern along the most direct route his engineers could find, so his operating costs were far lower than competitors’.

When the economic crash of 1893 took place a few months later, the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, and almost all other western railroads went into receivership…Many people predicted that the Great Northern would not be able to compete and would follow the others into bankruptcy. But Hill managed to stay out of receivership, and the Great Northern remained the only transcontinental built in North America without government subsidies that never went bankrupt.

By 1930, American railroad mileage peaked at about 260,000 miles…only 18,700 of these miles were built with land grants or other federal subsidies.

Second, Jim Powell writes about government corruption and 19th century railroad subsidies in his book on Teddy Roosevelt, Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy:

Whenever politicians interfered in the railroad business, however, corruption and inefficiency inevitably occurred. The most dramatic case involved construction of the first intercontinental railroad. Railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln supported the project, and he made it a priority after he became president in 1861…

Stephen Ambrose and other historians have faulted private markets for lacking the capital or the imagination to build the transcontinental railroad. Certainly it was true that private entrepreneurs and financiers did not see the point or risking huge sums to build a railroad across a vast, empty, and sometimes mountainous terrain. Private entrepreneurs and financiers added value by developing the rail network bit by bit, supporting the expanding freight business. The process was gradual. Grandiose schemes like the transcontinental railroad drained resources from some regions to benefit special interests.

There was no money to be made from operating a railroad through a desolate wasteland, yet the federal government rewarded railroad contractors with big subsidies: a thirty-year loan at below market interest rates; twenty sections (12,800 acres) of government-owned land for every mile of track; and an additional subsidy of $48,000 for every mile of track laid in mountainous regions.

Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames, and other officers of the Union Pacific Railroad, which went a thousand miles west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, started the Credit Mobilier company in 1867 and retained it to do the construction. Credit Mobilier distributed to shareholders profits estimated at between $7 million and $23 million, depleting the Union Pacific’s resources. In an effort to stop congressional investigations, the officers bribed Speaker of the House James G. Blaine and other congressmen with Credit Mobilier stock. Seldom modest about their thievery, congressmen voted themselves a 50 percent pay raise. The Union Pacific Railroad fell deep into debt, without enough revenue from passengers or shippers, and went bankrupt in 1893.

It is not surprising that Joe Biden, an individual who has spent his entire career in government, possesses a child-like devotion to the federal government’s capabilities. Biden is a major proponent behind the Obama administration’s misbegotten plan to build a national system of high-speed rail. That Biden stands to achieve historic notoriety for helping facilitate this latest government boondoggle is only fitting.

See Cato essays on federal transportation subsidies and the Department of Transportation timeline, which notes the Credit Mobilier scandal:

1872: The New York Sun exposes the Credit Mobilier scandal, perhaps the largest business subsidy scandal of the 19th century. Credit Mobilier is a construction company financially controlled by the leaders of the Union Pacific Railroad that makes huge profits at taxpayer expense. Congressman Oakes Ames (R-MA), who is an agent of Credit Mobilier and part-owner, distributes shares of the firm’s stock to members of Congress at a discounted value. In return, those members treat Credit Mobilier favorably in a variety of ways, such as by voting to appropriate funds for the firm. The scandal illustrates the corruption that usually results when the government intervenes in the economy and subsidizes businesses.

Randal O’Toole Assaults Myths of Suburbia

Urban planners want to shape our cities. And they want our cities to shape you. That’s the conclusion of Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole. He argues that the rationales for most urban planning collapses upon examination.

O’Toole — author of the forthcoming Cato book Gridlock — spoke at Cato University at Rancho Bernardo, California.

The Joys of Global Gridlock

The G-20 Summit in London on April 2 will feature politicians from around the world jockeying to promote bad ideas. Thankfully, there is a silver lining to this dark cloud since the United States and Europe do not agree on which bad idea deserves the most prominence. As the Wall Street Journal explains, the United States wants more nations to squander money of Keynesian-style schemes (see here to understand why bigger government is not stimulus). The Europeans, meanwhile, want to persecute tax havens and give the Keystone Cops at the IMF more money:

The U.S. will press world leaders to boost emergency government spending to lift the global economy, risking a rift with European nations more concerned with revamping financial regulation. In President Barack Obama’s first foray into economic diplomacy, Washington will urge the shift at a summit next month in London, U.S. officials say, as markets look for a unified plan of action from the world’s most economically powerful nations. Washington’s focus is at odds with France, Germany and other European nations that want the Group of 20 summit on April 2 to focus on rewriting rules governing financial markets. … U.S. officials, who could receive support from China and other countries with big stimulus programs, contend additional government spending is needed to reduce the depth and length of the downturn. Britain also may have an easier time seeing eye-to-eye with the U.S. than other European countries because both London and Washington are concerned that tighter financial regulation could harm their financial centers. Administration officials also say the G-20 isn’t ready to put new regulations in place, so focusing in that area would be counterproductive. … Even if the U.S. gets its way, the G-20 won’t ignore financial regulation. The G-20 has approved the concept of regulating the world’s largest financial institutions through international “colleges” of regulators.

The International Herald Tribune has more details on the misguided European proposals. At no point, though, is there any explanation of why the global economy would benefit from a bigger and more powerful IMF. The IMF certainly did not correctly predict the current financial turmoil. Nor has the IMF either correctly identified the government policy mistakes that caused the crisis or proposed policies that would help resuscitate the global economy. So why reward the bureaucrats with more money and power? The attack against tax havens is even more dubious. Desperate politicians like Gordon Brown are seeking scapegoats to distract voters, but it is unclear why tax havens should be blamed for asset bubbles caused by weak monetary policy and housing subsidies in “onshore” nations:

European finance ministers intend to push for a doubling of resources for the International Monetary fund to $500 billion, and to back the use of sweeping new sanctions against tax havens, according to a draft document. Confronted by a deepening global economic crisis, the top financial officials in the 27 European Union member countries are expected to agree in principle Tuesday to provide additional temporary funding for the IMF if necessary, and to support significant tightening of financial regulation. At a meeting in Brussels, the EU finance ministers are due to endorse a draft document, already approved by senior officials from national capitals, that will align the positions of European governments before the meeting of the heads of the Group of 20 developing and emerging economies in London next month. “It is essential,” the document says, “that the IMF has the appropriate financial means to assist countries particularly affected by the current crisis. EU member states support a doubling of IMF resources and are ready to contribute to a temporary increase if needed.” … The draft document…calls for the definition of a set of criteria by which to judge those that do not comply with international standards. “A tool box of sanctions” would be used to deal with such tax havens, the draft adds. These would include “the capacity to prohibit sales of financial products generated in these jurisdictions and the capacity to restrict companies’ operations into and from these jurisdictions.”

Gridlock generally is a good thing in Washington. If Republicans and Democrats are fighting, it slows the pace of legislation – which almost always protects liberty and prosperity. On the international level, where politicians scheme to set up cartels for the benefit of governments, gridlock is even more desirable.